Welcome to SLAM 116. Exactly one year ago, we put LeBron on the cover of SLAM 106. Since then he led his team to the NBA Finals and started this year with the best all-around stats of his life. But we’ve done so much on LeBron the basketball player, we wanted to flip it and take a look at LeBron, the marketing empire. SLAM senior editor Khalid Salaam wrote the cover story and he explains it here…

by Khalid Salaam

I was actually supposed to write this story last year. When we were talking about SLAM 106 this time one year ago, I wanted to write a LeBron piece about his off-court exploits and how that was as interesting as his playing ability. We all agreed that we should do one more traditional basketball story on Lebron first and then get into the other stuff.

In the meantime, Fortune magazine beat us to the punch, profiling LBJ’s budding business empire and what that means for the future of athlete endorsements. It was a good piece but missed a couple of things that I would not have missed. When I saw the Fortune article I was down on still doing my story. One thing I am not is a follower and I didn’t want us to come across as riding on some other mag’s coattails. Lang and Ben convinced me that our demographics probably don’t overlap much so most of our readers didn’t even see it.

I decided to write it, obviously, but I deviated a little from my initial idea as to make the story fresh, just in case someone did happen to read both. We scheduled the photo shoot and interview for the Saturday before Christmas. I hate traveling on holiday weekends so I was nervous about missing my flight therefore I barely got any sleep. My flight was at 6 and I went to sleep around 2 and got up and 4 so I was buggin’ in the morning. I got to the airport at 5:15 or so and was straight starving so I loaded up on granola bars and yogurt. The airport was pretty empty considering that it was one of the busiest travel days of the year.

My flight was cool except that I was sitting in the very last seat before the restroom and there were two women with babies sitting to the right and front of me. Babies on planes annoy me (no offense Ben and Ryan and whoever else) because there is always a good chance that they will cry. Or poop. I’m not much of a fan of either. I’m certain that when I have kids I will love the things I dislike about babies but until then I remain steadfast. The babies were actually well behaved, although one of them kept yelling and trying to speak to me. I kept my headphones on and gave the kid the no-expression, barely-blink look. In retro that was probably mean but I was really tired. I’m not perfect.

Never been to Cleveland before and I can’t really say that I’m upset about that. Granted, it was an overcast day but the city looked very industrial. And boring. The Cavs practice facility is in some city called Independence. Not sure why but I recall being intrigued by that. I’m sure there is a war story behind the name but whatever. I didn’t ask anyone because I was trying to stay focused. The facility is brand new, the security guard said it opened in September and it looked like it. I was chillin’ in the media lounge area for about 5 minutes before Slam creative director Melissa Winkler and longtime Slam photographer Atiba Jefferson arrived. The Cavs had another hour of practice time so we sat around drinking orange juice and talking about all sorts of stuff. Atiba hired a couple of freelance photographer guys who were there to help set up the lights and whatever else he needed. While still in the break room one of the guys mentioned that another man had recently hit on him and that he was uncomfortable with that but joked that maybe he’d let him buy him a drink. Atiba told the dude that wearing super tight jeans was a bad look if he was trying to avoid the advances of gay men. I laughed and wondered how a grown man could fit inside a size 26 waist in the first place.

We set up the lights and I got my notes ready. I always write out my questions even when I memorize them. Sometimes things happen and you can get distracted so to minimize the BS I write it out. Being that LeBron had to wear three different outfits and they had to get the measurements correct to merge the photos, I had to fill in as a “body double,” which is funny since dude is 6-9 and I’m pushing 6 feet and he outweighs me by like 50 pounds. I was wide awake but sorta hungry so I forced myself to stay focused. Atiba and Melissa had me doing all kinds of poses and I had to sit up high as to try to get the measurements right. I had to rock a Cavs jersey and everything. It was funny until I started cramping, I didn’t let that stop my hustle though. I was doing my best to be a team player. I feel as though I succeeded at that. Bron came in ready to work but was somewhat unresponsive to Atiba’s request to vary his facial expressions, Melissa’s request that he smile and my early questions.

Now with any interview, the questions you ask are the most important thing. That’s how you get the answers that you build the story around. When a story sucks I often blame the writer for asking crappy questions. My questions were good though, so I didn’t know what the problem was. Bron wasn’t rude or negative or in any way disrespectful, he was just seemingly bored and ready to go. Well, so was I, so I asked the questions with more vigor and swiftness. He started to respond better after the 3rd or 4th question. It was a holiday weekend and he probably wanted to be with his loved ones. I understood.

During each wardrobe switch I asked him more questions and he answered them with some cliche responses but he also did give me positive insight into what makes him tick, his role model (his Mom) and his plans for the company that he runs with his friends (LRMR). Cavs director of communications Amanda Mercado was with us at all times and she was very helpful with getting Bron to talk and pose for out shots. He warmed up as the process went along and what came from that is our latest cover. The photos came out well. I won’t comment on the quality of the story, that’s for you guys to decide (damn that, the story’s hot, they can’t hold me!!)

From then on it was cool, although I had to run like I was Edwin Moses to catch my flight back. We all stopped to eat and I overestimated my time, resulting in me flirting with an old-school asthma attack. All in all good stuff, and I’m interested in hearing the feedback once you guys read the story.